The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources asked a judge last week to throw out its own proposed settlement with Duke Energy over pollution leaking from waste dumps at its power plants. The state agency requested the action the day after an Associated Press (AP) story was published, describing the settlement as a “sweetheart deal” between state regulators and Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electrical company.
The proposed settlement would have had Duke pay fines of just $99,111 for pollution that spilled from coal ash dumps in Asheville and Charlotte. State regulators and Duke reached the settlement before the Feb. 2 coal ash spill that flooded the Dan River in the northern part of the state with enough toxic sludge to fill 73 Olympic-size swimming pools.
According to the AP, environmentalists said the deal was designed to shield Duke from paying penalties under the federal Clean Water Act, which would have been far more expensive for the $50-billion corporation.
The accusations are based the lax regulatory oversight of Duke Energy in the past and N.C. governor Pat McCrory’s ties to the company. Mr. McCrory worked for Duke Energy for 28 years, a career that he left in 2007 to seek political office.
According to the AP, “Since his unsuccessful first campaign for governor in 2008, campaign finance reports show Duke Energy, its political action committee, executives and their immediate families have donated at least $1.1 million to McCrory’s campaign and affiliated groups that spent on TV ads, mailings and events to support him.”
Mr. McCrory successfully ran for re-election in 2012. On a state ethics form, he divulged that his investment portfolio includes Duke Energy stock holdings valued at more than $10,000, but N.C. law doesn’t require him to disclose the specific amount.
The AP also reported that in 2013, environmental groups tried to sue Duke Energy three times under the Clean Water Act to force Duke to clear out its 31 leaking coal ash dumps throughout the state. The environmental groups took legal action after state regulators failed to act on evidence provided by conservationists of groundwater contamination caused by Duke’s toxic sludge ponds, including high levels of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals and toxins.
“Each time, the state agency blocked the citizen lawsuits by intervening at the last minute to assert its own authority under the act to take enforcement action in state court” the AP reported. “After negotiating with the company, the state proposed settlements that environmentalists regarded as highly favorable to the company.”
Duke Energy’s latest spill was discovered on Feb. 2 when a security guard at the company’s Dan River facility noticed that a pipe underneath the 27-acre sludge pond had collapsed, allowing at least 82,000 tons and 27 million gallons of contaminated water to drain into the Dan River, turning it gray and cloudy for miles.
The public wasn’t notified about the spill until the following day, and even then the initial reports from Duke Energy were unclear about the scale of the disaster. Repairs of the ruptured pipe weren’t completed for a week after the spill.
According to the AP, state N.C. environmental officials said that arsenic, lead, and other toxins from the coal ash were present in safe levels in the river. Days later, however, the regulatory authorities said they had made an “honest mistake while interpreting the results” and warned people to avoid any prolonged exposure to the water.